Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Simon Hewitt alludes to the value of inhabiting a tradition, as part of any anticapitalist project. This shouldn't be controversial. Human beings cannot really exist outside of tradition, though capitalism constantly tries to acculturate them into doing so. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher draws on Frederic Jameson to riff on 'postmodern temporality'. This is a condition where "realities and identities are upgraded like software", such that any "settled sense of self" becomes impossible, such that historical memory and tradition is sacrificed to constant novelty, to "the vertiginous 'continuous present'" characteristic of late capitalism. He quotes from Jameson's 'The Antinomies of Postmodernity', the same essay in which the famous and often misremembered quotation appears: "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations." This 'perhaps' is misleading, as the argument leads directly into Jameson's arguments concerning late capitalist celerity and its effects on the political imaginary. Fisher's sample is worth quoting:
"The paradox from which we must set forth is the equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything - feelings along with consumer goods, language along with built space - that would seem incompatible with such mutability... What then dawns is the realization that no society has ever been as standarized as this one, and that the stream of human, social and historical temporality has never flowed quite so homogenously. ... What we now begin to feel, therefore - and what begins to emerge as some deeper and more fundamental constitution of postmodernity itself, at least in its temporal dimension - is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, that nothing can change any longer."
No wonder that in this situation, it is "easier to grasp the progressive value of conservative or residual modes of resistance to the new thing" than to evaluate "ostensibly left-liberal positions" which "often prove to be indistinguishable from the structural requirements of the system itself". Novelty, 'reform', 'progress', constant newness are bywords for planned obsolescence, for capitalist destruction of the welfare state, education, healthcare, and so on. But Jameson may be succumbing to the cult of novelty himself here, since what he describes as an aspect of late capitalism, of postmodern temporality, is only an aspect of capitalist ideology as such. Capitalism has always venerated its constant reinvention of the wheel, as it were, while celebrating a maudlin fabrication that it calls 'tradition', the purpose of which is to blot out real, living traditions.
The relative strength of the ruling class and its dominant institutions with respect to the working class and its oppositional institutions means that there is all the more pressure brought to bear on the labour movement and the left to adopt vacuous discourses of 'modernity' (and its reliable discursive partner, 'realism'). It constantly seeks to depict the language and institutions of the Left as worse than wrong, but actually uncool, out of fashion, anachronistic. Naturally, this gives rise to the illusion that we can or should seek to jettison those embarrassing encumbrances of old - narrow 19th century notions like classes, parties and ideologies, but obviously not money, markets, credit, capital, interest, etc. But we go along with this at our peril. It is part of our subjection. Part of the means of ensuring that there will be no change.